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Archive for April, 2011

World Wide KAP Week 2011 – Day 1

Posted by Tom Benedict on 30/04/2011

The opening day of World Wide KAP Week 2011 didn’t start as smoothly as I’d hoped.  That northerly that was supposed to come in around 11am never did, and when wind did finally develop, it was coming out of the south.  I’d gripe, but I have to cut the meteorology models some slack.  Any time vog or clouds cover the inland lava fields, it wreaks havoc with the wind.  Most of the wind on the west side of the island is generated by thermals, so if they never get a chance to set up, the wind never gets going.  Kona was covered with clouds, so that northerly never happened.

Emily Hates Kites

On the way south to Kona for my non-existent date with the non-existent wind, I stopped at the far end of the Blue Hawaiian airfield near Anaehoomalu Bay.  Their wind sock said it all: nada.  The graffiti in the foreground makes me think Emily doesn’t like kites.  But that’s probably just circumstantial.

Manini Owali toward Four Seasons

After running errands in Kailua-Kona, I saw the wind finally had picked up.  But it was blowing out of the south.  Go figure!  I stopped at Manini Owali Beach at Kua Bay to finally get some KAP in.  It was a good session.

I had mixed luck with the Push N8 gear.  The zero wind conditions earlier in the day led me to do some videos from a pole.  I’ve got a 22′ pole I keep strapped to the top of my Jeep for opportunities like this, so it was a simple matter to pop the pan servo off the N8 rig and bolt it onto the pole.  I like the sequences I did, but I really wanted to back them up with KAP flights later in the day.  Unfortunately that never happened.

After flying my A650 at Kua Bay, I pulled out the N8 gear to give it some time in the air.  Unfortunately all the pole work earlier had depleted the rig batteries to the point where the Bluetooth modem on the rig didn’t have the juice to connect to the phone.  After fiddling with it for about twenty minutes I gave up on it and put it back in my bag.  RATS.

When I got home the first thing I did was start running all my batteries through my battery conditioner.  Most AA and AAA chargers charge the batteries in pairs.  Some time ago I got a La Crosse BC-9009 charger.  It charges each battery separately, which helps keep batteries balanced and happy.  When they start to go downhill you can also use the BC-9009 to do discharge/recharge cycles on them until their current capacity is closer to peak.  This process takes roughly a week, though, so I try not to do it unless I really need to.  The nice thing is since it charges the batteries independently, you can see when one starts to lag.  At that point it’s best to go ahead and recondition the whole set and check their capacities to make sure they’re still matched.  It’s handy.

Unfortunately I have no idea what the weather is supposed to be like tomorrow.  The wind models I use haven’t run in the last 24 hours, so there are no new models to work with.  ARGH!  In any case the plan is to hike into Pololu Valley on Saturday, and go to a beach Sunday.  I hope to pad that with a Saturday evening flight and a Sunday morning one as well, but I haven’t planned those out just yet.

I hope everyone is having a good time with World Wide KAP Week.  Keep flying!

– Tom

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World Wide KAP Week 2011 – Pre-Planning

Posted by Tom Benedict on 29/04/2011

Tomorrow is the beginning of World Wide KAP Week 2011.  I’ve taken the time off from work, my batteries are charged, my kites are packed, and it’s time to fly.

This year is special for a couple of reasons.  The first is I’m taking the Push N8 gear along with me.  I had some issues that cost me my window of availability with the humpback whales this season, but I’ve got other plans for the gear.  I’m planning to use it from a kite and from a pole, and make a video that shows of some of the cooler spots on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The rough part will be editing it down to a couple of minutes worth of film.  I hope the process hurts.  It means I got more good stuff than I can use.

The second is that it may well be the last year my trusty A650 IS is my primary KAP camera.  A couple of weeks ago I picked up a Canon T2i DSLR with an 18-55mm kit lens.  I’ve been after this camera for a while, but haven’t been able to pull it off until now.  I’m planning to take it with me during WWKW 2011, but it will remain firmly on the ground.  Next year, the T2i will likely be my primary.

The third is that I’ll be working at least one day this week, doing KAP for work at the summit of Mauna Kea.  We’re planning to do flow visualization around our dome using ground cameras as well as KAP cameras, with smoke as the flow tracer.  The jury is still out on whether we want to do this.  Smoke at the summit can cause all sorts of issues, including damage to thin optical coatings, residue on the exterior of the building, etc.  But I’m picking up the flares tomorrow so we can test.  Time will tell.

It’s going to be a good World Wide KAP Week this year.  I’m planning on it.

The weather for tomorrow calls for slow winds along the North Kona Coast with a northerly setting up for the Kailua-Kona area by around 11:00am.  I’m planning to start around Anaehoomalu Bay, maybe pick up Keawaiki and Kiholo Bay, stop at Kua Bay and maybe Makalawena Beach.  After lunch and a quick stop to pick up the flares for work, the plan is to do KAP around Kailua-Kona, finishing up near sunset as the wind dies down for the evening.  I’ll post an update tomorrow to let everyone know how it goes.

Here’s wishing everyone a good World Wide KAP Week 2011!  May your skies be blue, your wind be steady, your kites fly well, and your photography be excellent.

– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography | Leave a Comment »

Playing with the Canon T2i

Posted by Tom Benedict on 27/04/2011

I probably won’t have my new camera in the air for at least a few weeks.  More realistically it’ll be closer to a month.  In the meanwhile I’ve been playing with it on the ground to see what it can do and what possibilities it opens up.  The most interesting outcome of all the testing I’ve done is to realize it’s fun re-learning how to do photography with a viewfinder!

Some months ago we lost one of our cats, but I was able to make signs to put up around the neighborhood thanks to some photographs I’d made of her when I was doing KAP at the end of the driveway.  She was posing, I had a camera, ’nuff said.  It was lucky happenstance.  But I realized we didn’t have any photos of the latest additions to our cat herd, and that I’d be hard-pressed to describe them on a poster if any of them went missing.  Perfect opportunity!


I actually have photographs of Echo, which I’ve used to make posters in the past when she has gone missing.  But she’s photogenic and presents a good lighting problem:  Her white and black fur are difficult to photograph without losing detail, especially if her white fur is facing the light and her black fur is in shadow.  This is similar to a lighting problem I’ve run into with KAP that I’ll describe later.

This was done as a RAW file, processed in the Canon Digital Photo Professional software that came with the camera, and finished in Photoshop 7.  The brightest part of her white fur is still blown, but there’s enough detail elsewhere that the eye skips over the blank part.  The black fur also has detail that’s maintained.  It’s a good start.

Can your tongue do THIS?!

Echo had four kittens, one of whom died.  We kept the other three.  I still haven’t photographed her third kitten, but this is one of hers: Ember.  Of all the cats he’s been the hardest one to photograph.  He and I have formed a tight bond, and I think it disturbs him that I grew this giant black eyeball I keep pointing at him.  About five seconds after making this photo he freaked and ran off down the driveway.  It’s not my favorite photograph because of the blown-out background.  But it’s what I can get, so I’m taking it.

I really like the quality of the Canon glass.  This is done with the 18-55mm kit lens that came with the camera, racked to 55mm.  It’s one of Canon’s least expensive lenses, but the quality is still outstanding compared to the compact camera I’ve been using for KAP.  The reflections in Ember’s eyes and the detail in his tongue sold me on the idea of using this lens in the air.

Mr. Peep

Mr. Peep is another of Echo’s kittens.  He’s much more patient with the idea of having a camera pointed at him than Ember is.  Again, the image quality I’m getting, even from a kit lens, is fantastic.  I know if I stuck L glass on the thing I’d be even happier, but L lenses are typically heavy, and weight is a big concern in the air.  I’ll take it.  This was done under overcast skies, so it doesn’t present the lighting problems the other two photos had.  I still did RAW processing, more to get the practice than anything else.  Mr. Peep was patient with me.

Four for Sunset

Hapuna Beach is one of my favorite proving grounds for KAP gear and KAP cameras.  It’s where I did the bulk of my sunset testing with the A650, so it seemed like a natural for testing the T2i as well.  There’s a short cliff at the back of the beach, so I even got to try an elevated viewpoint.  Sunsets are problematic for KAP because the light is falling fast, and the short exposure times necessary to avoid motion blur are tough to get.  Higher ISOs cause higher noise, and on my A650 anything over ISO 100 was unacceptable.  From the numbers it looked like the T2i could push to ISO 800 without too many problems.  In my mind ISO 800 is still too noisy for my taste.  But ISO 400 is quite nice.  The DPP software also does noise reduction, though it’s pretty heavy-handed in how it’s applied.  At ISO 400, though, it does a good job.

Sunsets and golden hour photography poses another problem as well:  The difference in brightness between sky and ground can be extreme.  As with the photograph of Echo, it’s tough to get a good exposure that treats both sky and ground well.  When doing sunset photography from a tripod, the normal approach is to let the foreground go dark and make a silhouette against a properly exposed sky.  With KAP the sky and the foreground both have to deliver, so this isn’t an option. Last year I added a graduated neutral density filter to my KAP bag to help with this.  It does a good job, but it reduces the light the camera sees.

Another approach is to save sunset photography as RAW files since it’s possible to recover highlight and shadow detail that would be clipped from an in-camera JPG.  This photo was made as a RAW and processed similarly to how Echo’s photo was done.  The foreground actually had a good deal of texture in it.  I could’ve processed it differently and bumped up the light level in the foreground.  If it was a KAP image, I might have.  It made a good silhouette, so I dropped it instead.  There’s still texture in the foreground on this one, but the people are almost completely black.

Full-Frame T2i JPG

Full-Frame T2i Processed RAW

This last pair was done both as an in-camera JPG (top) and as a RAW file (bottom).  I posted them both to Flickr full-size and un-cropped, so if you’re interested in the T2i and want to see what a from-the-camera image looks like, feel free.  When discussing Echo’s photograph above, I mentioned that sunlit whites and shadowed blacks can cause exposure issues.  The best example I have of this is a rocky beach with surf.  Some months ago I did a KAP session at Laupahoehoe Point, a great spot on the Hamakua Coast that I’ve tried to do KAP at numerous times.  The session went great, the kite flew like a dream, everything was perfect!  Until I got home, that is.  The black rock, dark water, and bright surf meant the camera blew just about every exposure I made.  I didn’t post a single photo from that session.  It was a dead loss.

Here I wanted to see if I could get a good exposure on the rocks, but still retain detail in the surf.  By using RAW files I could, as you can see.  But herein lies the catch with RAW: processing.  If you take a close look at the processed RAW file on the bottom, there’s a cluster of purple spots in the lower 1/3 of the frame, just off-center to the left.  A friend and fellow photographer pointed out that this can happen with RAW processing if an area truly is blown out and the processing is too strong.  DANG!

If I came away with this from a KAP session, I’d probably use rubber stamp to get rid of the purple spots.  But a better approach would be to see what I can do to avoid them in the first place.  RAW processing is new ground for me.  I have a lot to learn.

So why is it taking so long to get the T2i in the air?  I’ll get into the details in a later post, but the upshot is I’m building a custom rig for the camera that should help it make the kinds of photographs I want in the air.  Here’s a sneak-peek:

Mystery KAP Bit v3

It’s a panoramic KAP rig that uses a Geneva mechanism to rotate the camera.  As drawn it has ten stations on the Geneva wheel.  Given the field of view of the camera this should work well. If not I’ll build another one with more stations.  It’s driven by a DC gear motor, controlled by a microcontroller, and will maintain a given pan rate to within a few hundredths of a second, even as the batteries run out.  The reason for the Geneva is so that the camera is not panning when an exposure is made.  Burst KAP typically requires a 1/1000 sec or faster exposure speed to compensate for the camera’s continuous panning motion.  By using a Geneva, I hope to be able to push that down into the 1/250 sec regime with the help of an image stabilized lens (which the kit lens on this camera is!)  It should make sunset and golden hour panoramas a real possibility.

More on the rig design later.   For now, I have a lot to learn about this camera.

– Tom

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New KAP Camera – Canon T2i

Posted by Tom Benedict on 22/04/2011

Just in time for a three-day weekend, my new camera arrived.  The first thing I did when I opened the box was…  Ok, it was to jump up and down for joy.  After that I plugged in the battery charger and started it going.  But the next thing was to put it on the scale and see what the damage was going to be to my flying weight.

My A650IS, flight ready with its batteries came out to 383g.  The T2i, flight ready with its battery came out to 733g, a difference of 350g.  My three-axis A650 rig, flight ready with the camera installed comes out to 940g.  To build the T2i rig to be less than or equal to this weight gives me approximately 207g to play with.  Depending on the rig I build, this may not be as ridiculous as it seems.  An ortho mapping rig, for example, is relatively easy to build in less than 100g.  A pan axis typically adds less than 100g.  So a panorama rig for the T2i may still result in a final flying weight no worse than my current rig.  Building a full pan/tilt/plan rotation rig like the one for my A650 is almost certainly out of the question at the moment.  I don’t have the kites to fly it, and pushing my existing kites that hard isn’t any fun.  (Trust me, I’ve done it.)

World Wide KAP Week 2011 begins next Friday.  I may do some design work on my new rig(s) over that week, but it’s more likely that I’ll be out doing KAP the entire time.  I don’t expect to begin on the new rig design in earnest until the end of WWKW 2011.  At that point I’ll start posting my design notes, preliminary drawings, and eventually photographs of the actual build(s).

Meanwhile I plan to carry it around wherever I go and get used to using a DSLR again.  It’s been a while.  And with all the bells and whistles on the T2i that might be useful in the air, I’ve got a lot of ground testing to do before it takes to the skies.

It’s going to be a fun couple of weeks!

– Tom

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Thoughts on the Golden Hour

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/04/2011

About a year ago, one of the members of the Kona Camera Club looked at some panoramas I’d done in Pololu Valley, and made the comment that I had a great vantage point, but shot under lousy light.  To be fair he worded it far more kindly than that, but that’s what it boiled down to.  As I’ve seen it put elsewhere, if you see a supermodel in a bikini walking a cheetah through Times Square at noon, enjoy the spectacle, but leave the camera in the bag and ask her to come back toward sunset.  My panoramas were made at noon.  Cheetah or no, the light really wasn’t ideal.

This pushed me.  I started trying to do KAP in the evening and ran into all sorts of problems.  The first is that the wind changes as the sun sets.  Without their heat source thermals collapse and everything shifts.  Sometimes it can be predicted, and at other times your gear just falls out of the sky.  Each location has its own behavior.  Living on the west side of Hawaii Island, the change is typically sudden and strong.  I’ve done evening photography on the east side, and I didn’t even notice the change as the sun set.  It just depends on where you are.

The second problem I ran into is that the light falls off as the sun sets.  No big deal on a tripod, but this can be a show stopper on a kite.  In order to minimize motion blur, I typically shoot at 1/1000 of a second or faster.  Because my camera is a compact, I can’t shoot at over ISO 80 or ISO 100 and expect to get usable noise.  Put these two together and you can see that it’s a recipe for disaster.

The third problem I ran into ties back to the reason why I keep a set of graduated neutral density filters in my camera bag.  Toward sunset the difference in luminosity between sky and ground can be so high that only one of them can be properly exposed.  This is great for sunrise silhouettes, but with KAP the idea is to photograph the landscape, not throw it into darkness.  So I started using a graduated neutral density filter in the air.  Putting any filter in front of a lens costs you light.  This only made the noise issue worse.

And all of this is why I wound up buying a Canon T2i to be my new KAP camera.  It should arrive in the next two days.  I can’t wait!

But in the meanwhile I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching on what constitutes the golden hour.  Traditionally it’s the hour right around sunrise and sunset.  Here in the tropics that light only exists for about thirty minutes around sunrise and sunset, unfortunately.  So is this the only time a photographer can really work?  Does it really mean that I should pack my gear and leave it in the bag throughout the rest of the day?

A recent trip to Kiholo Bay convinced me this isn’t the case.  I was there to photograph honu, or Pacific Green Sea Turtles.  They swim in the waters of the Kiholo Bay Lagoon, and make great KAP subjects.  I showed up just before noon and did photography until about 2:00pm.  In every case the reflections off the water spoiled the photographs I made.  Even the ones I made using a polarizing filter have these  hot spots in them.  There’s only so much a filter can do.

But I’ve tried photographing underwater subjects around sunset, and the conditions are equally bad then.  In this case the light just can’t penetrate the water enough to illuminate the subject, and the detail is lost.  I’ve found the best time for this is between 3:30pm and 5:00pm: several hours before sunset.

Another favorite subject is people’s shadows.  The idea is to point the camera straight down and photograph people as they do what they do.  The real subject of the photograph isn’t the people themselves, it’s their shadows.  But for this to work their shadows have to be just long enough for them to look like people, but not so long that they stretch beyond the edge of the frame.  During the traditional golden hour the shadows are just too long.  Shadow people have to be photographed earlier in the day.  This winds up working well around 4:00-5:00pm.

So clearly there is more than one golden hour, depending on the subject.

As I said, I should have my new camera some time in the next couple of days.  I have plans to build two KAP rigs for it so far: a panorama rig using a Geneva mechanism on the pan axis, and an ortho rig that points the camera straight down.  I also have plans to use these to find which subjects work best at each hour of the day.  I do think noon is out.  I haven’t found anything that really shines under that harsh light.  But I do think it’s possible for a kite aerial photographer to put in a full day of photography under ideal conditions, not just in the half hour around sunrise or sunset.

It’ll be fun.

– Tom

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A Day With The Honu

Posted by Tom Benedict on 19/04/2011

I took my KAP gear and the Push N8 KAP gear to Kiholo Bay last Saturday.  As with most places there are a couple of ways to hike in there.  Most people prefer to park somewhere along the bay and hike in along the coast.  Personally, I prefer to park at the highway and hike in across the lava.  The flow is about 150 years old, so relatively fresh in geologic terms.  It’s barren, it’s harsh, but it’s beautiful to me.  I love it.

The end of the hike is the lagoon at Kiholo Bay, an equally beautiful spot.  Unlike an anchialine pond the lagoon has a surface connection to the sea, but it’s so shallow it’s almost cut off from tidal flow.  The water is extremely still, and is fed both from the ocean and from freshwater springs.  The result is a body of water whose salinity is highly stratified.  At the surface the water is remarkably clear with relatively low salinity.  The deeper you go, the higher the salinity in the water.  Below a certain depth the water is saturated with saline favoring organisms that color the water a beautiful aquamarine similar to the color of a moraine lake near a glacier.  The only environments I’ve found similar to the one at Kiholo Bay are salt ponds such as the ones at the south end of San Francisco Bay.

Pacific Green Sea Turtles, or honu, can be found at most beaches in Hawaii, but because the lagoon at Kiholo Bay is free of sharks, their main predator in the open ocean, it’s a favorite of theirs.  I have yet to do a photo session at the lagoon where I didn’t see dozens of turtles swimming, eating, or sunning on the rocks.  Photographer heaven!

A little over a year ago a friend and I developed a technique for photographing honu from a KAP rig.  It involves letting out line fast enough so the KAP rig glides out over the surface of the water.  When the rig  reaches the honu, the line is stopped and the rig slowly drifts into the sky.  Meanwhile the photographer trips the shutter.  It worked well with my A650IS rig.  I was eager to try it with the Nokia N8 hardware!

The Nokia gear worked, but I had trouble using the technique.  No fault of the hardware.  It was just too light, the kite was too big, and the wind was too strong.  Even letting out line as fast as I could, the rig went up instead of out, so I never got the low altitudes I needed.  Eventually I packed the Nokia gear away and pulled out my A650 rig to give it a go.

When we first used this technique, there were two of us.  I ran the kite and winder, and he ran the rig and camera.  I stood upwind of the honu, and he stood about 90 degrees to the kite line.  I let out line and jockeyed it side-to-side so I kept the rig in line with the honu, and he called “Stop!” since he could see when it was directly overhead.  This time there was just me.  I was curious if I could do it single-handed.

After a fashion, I could.  But there were some lessons learned:

I could judge distance out to about 20-30′.  Past that I couldn’t tell when the rig was directly over the honu.  This limits how useful the technique is, but at Kiholo Bay it can still be used.  At mid to low tide the drop-off is quite sharp, and the turtles are only ten feet or so from shore when feeding.  This also brings the technique within reach of a 25′ pole, so I may go this route in the future.  (Sorry, KAP purists…  I’m after the vantage point rather than a particular technique.  If the pole gets me what I need, I’ll use it.)

Older turtles turn white.  I don’t know if this is because of the organisms living in the water at Kiholo Bay, or if there’s some other mechanism behind it.  Regardless, pure white turtles are a lot less photogenic than you might think.  Younger turtles have more texture and color.

There are three distinct bands of background for turtles at Kiholo Bay.  Close in, you get turtles sunning themselves on the rocky shore.  The rocks are dark lava rock.  This can skew exposure readings on the camera.  Worse yet, white turtles on a black background can easily overcome the dynamic range of the camera.  Further out, you get submerged lava rocks.  These are still black.  Wet, they’re even darker than the ones on shore.  The dynamic range and metering problems only get worse in this zone.  Even further out, the water is deep enough for the organisms in the saline-rich waters to color the background a lovely aquamarine.  Young turtles photographed over this wash of color really work.

Noon is the wrong time to do photography over water, pointed straight down.  The reflections off the water kill you.  Some time after 3pm is probably better. Likewise, doing photography straight down into the water during the golden hour around sunset also doesn’t work well because the light doesn’t penetrate the water deep enough to light the subject.  My guess is 4pm-5pm is the ideal time for this technique.

Polarizing filters really work for this application, but this brings up my final lesson learned from this trip:  My A650 is noisy.

Ok, to be fair I didn’t learn this on this trip alone.  I know my A650 is noisy, though for a compact camera its noise characteristics are actually quite good.  The problem is that kite aerial photography already starves cameras of light because of the requirement of fast shutter speeds.  Start throwing filters in front of the lens, or doing your photography under overcast skies or at sunset, and the situation only gets worse.  By the time you add up all the conditions I was operating under at Kiholo Bay, I simply didn’t have enough light left.  The photographs were too noisy to use.

One more reason why I’m moving to the T2i for KAP.  And one more reason why I’m interested in trying this technique from a pole the next time I’m at Kiholo Bay.

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Kite Aerial Photography, N8 Push, Photography | Leave a Comment »

Coffee So Strong It Needs A Safety Valve

Posted by Tom Benedict on 12/04/2011

People say there are two best days a boat owner spends with their boat: the day they buy it, and the day they sell it.  It’s the same with housemates.  In college we shared an apartment with two of our friends.  The day we moved in was a party, and so was the day we moved out.  But the significance of going from four inhabitants to two, and splitting up all the stuff we’d shared for the past year didn’t hit me until I woke up the next morning in our new place and realized we had no way to make coffee.

I stumbled out of the apartment with one thought on my mind: I had to come back with coffee before my wife woke up.  Better still, come back with a way to make coffee the next day, too.  I didn’t really have a plan except that I knew a local roaster who had good beans.  I figured I’d start there.  I probably looked a little frantic when I came in the door with a bad case of bed-head and a wild look in my eye, but they sold coffee for crying out loud; it comes with the territory.  By the time I got back in the car I had a pound of beans and some of those cool espresso cups you find poets sipping from in cafes that don’t use words like “venti”.  Oh, and a cappuccino maker.

It was more than we could afford, but there was something about the idea of waking up every morning and drinking finely crafted coffee that appealed.  As I pulled the thing off the shelf I thought, “This is a sane and rational thing to do.”  I figured I had one shot at this.  If my wife didn’t like the coffee, she was gonna kill me.

Once home, I somehow managed to unpack everything, dig out our coffee grinder, and set it all up without waking her.  Years ago I’d learned the trick of wrapping the coffee grinder with pillows to silence its turbojet whine.  The cappuccino maker was a model I’d used before so I knew how it worked.  Minutes later, with two cups of cappuccino in hand, I sat on the edge of the bed and woke her up.

Little did I know I was starting a tradition that has lasted to this day:  I get up early, make the coffee, and we share our morning cup in bed.  Since that day we’ve both changed jobs several times, we had three kids, and we moved to Hawaii.  The tradition has never wavered and that machine always delivered.  But from time to time my wife would squint at the cappuccino maker and say, “It’s getting kind of old.  Don’t you think we should replace it?”

“Well… No!  I mean, it still makes good coffee,” I would reply at times like this.  “And it works, so it’s not like we need to replace it!”  The real problem is that it had taken me years to learn the machine’s quirks well enough to convince it to make two good cups of coffee without fail every morning.  I didn’t want to go through another learning curve like that.

My wife was right, of course.  The safety valve on the cap started to blow off at strange times, sometimes even before coffee started to trickle out of the spout.  The lid got harder and harder to screw on and off.  It leaked.  I think the machine was trying to communicate to me that it wanted to retire, but I wasn’t listening.

Eventually the coffee maker solved the issue for us.  I got up early as usual, filled the tank, did my best to screw on the lid, and hit the switch.  The coffee was a little sluggish coming out and it sounded like the safety valve had indigestion.  Whatever…I poured milk into my wife’s cup, got ready to interrupt it at just the right moment to steam the milk, and…

To say it blew up is an understatement.  I doubt it held more than a pint of water, and the pressures really weren’t that high compared to the industrial boilers of old.  But when the tank ruptured and the water inside flashed to steam, the whole thing went up like a bomb.  Ground coffee, milk, cup, and bits of coffee maker went everywhere.

In the deafening silence that followed, I unplugged the poor thing and drove to Starbucks.  No poets, no cool espresso cups, and I said “venti” twice to get our coffee.  I also got pastries for the whole family so we could mourn the cappuccino maker properly.  Then I headed home.  As it turns out my wife had slept through the explosion, and was grateful for the coffee.  She didn’t even say, “I told you so.”

Later that day I drove into town and picked up a new machine.  When this one starts making those “help me!” noises, it will be seen, heard, and be allowed to retire with full honors.  Not with so much fanfare, though, I hope.

– Tom

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Posted by Tom Benedict on 11/04/2011

One of the real advantages of kite aerial photography is that it offers immediate feedback:  A KAPer can walk up to a subject, have a camera airborne, photograph the subject, pack, and leave, all within the span of a few minutes.  This is one of the reasons KAP has so much appeal to archaeologists, who often use aerial photography from years or even decades previous. KAP offers an inexpensive alternative to renting an airplane and hiring a pilot.

This immediacy has utility outside of archaeology as well.  In the middle of March, 2011, I went to Seattle with some guys from work to use the water tunnel facility at the University of Washington.  That’s a story in its own right, which I’ll save for another day.  While I was there, a massive earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan.  The resulting tsunami devastated Japan, and also reached my home of Hawaii.  I got what information I could at the time, but it was another week before I flew home and saw the damage for myself.  Considering what happened in Japan, the damage in Hawaii was minimal.  And thanks to KAP, I can show you this:

Waikoloa Resorts and Anaehoomalu Bay - Post 2011 Tsunami
One week after I got back, we all went to Anaehoomalu Bay, to the beach across from the resorts.  The back side of the beach is a fish pond with a long history of its own.  The front side of the beach is the Pacific Ocean, where the tsunami came from.  In the photo above you can see the damage to the beach and to the fish pond retaining wall.
Tsunami Breakthrough

The damage is more visible from directly above.  The wave took out the sand berm all along the beach, and broke through the retaining wall for the fish pond at the back.  Numerous coconut trees are down in the water, with only a few in the broken section still standing.  The fishpond is open to tidal flow now, and there is free exchange of fish, honu, and other wildlife between the two bodies of water.  Stones from the retaining wall are scattered throughout the channel, which is now marked with hazard signs.

I don’t know what the resort is planning to do with the beach in the future.  Put it back the way it was?  Landscape it the way it is?  No matter what, I know I can photograph it as it happens.  It’s one of the things KAP is best at.

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | 8 Comments »


Posted by Tom Benedict on 10/04/2011

Back in the late 1990’s, my wife bought me a Bender 4×5 monorail camera kit for my birthday: my first large format camera.  This was no accident.  I’d recently finished reading Ansel Adams’s “The Camera”, “The Negative”, and “The Print”, and I was driving her up the wall with my need to get a view camera.  The kit took several weeks to build and finish, helped to some extent by an onset of bronchitis that had me out sick from work, hacking up a lung.

Of course once you have a camera everything starts to look like a subject.  But I restrained myself.  Look at it this way:  Each exposure is a sheet of film measuring 4″ x 5″.  Each sheet needs to be developed by hand.  Each negative then needs to be printed, again by hand.  Making a 4×5 exposure isn’t the same as clicking the shutter on a 35mm camera or on a digital camera that can hold thousands of photos.  It’s an investment in time, money, and effort.  Every one should count.

So I chose carefully.  One of my earliest photos with my Bender was a re-creation of a photograph Ansel Adams made of a pair of scissors with a thread dropped across them.  I had a pair of Wiss sewing scissors my mother had inherited from her mother.  They were the scissors I used when she first taught me to sew, her Fiskars being far too valuable for me to use at that age.  When my mother died, I inherited the scissors from her.  I couldn’t think of a better pair to use for the photograph.


As I mentioned in an earlier post, my wife and I recently ditched our old sewing machines and picked up a new Janome.  A couple of weeks after getting the machine I pulled out those Wiss scissors.  They’d seen better days.  The years and the humidity here in Hawaii had taken their toll.  So I cleaned them, oiled them, and very carefully put new edges on the blades.  By the time I was done they were once again cutting cloth as if it was air.  It was with some reverence that I put them in our new sewing box.

Still, one problem remained:  These are right-handed scissors.  Every pair of sewing scissors I’ve ever used has been right-handed.  But I’m a leftie!  Time to get new scissors.

Unlike my mother and my wife, both of whom are Fiskars people, I really like the feel of metal on the hand.  I guess that’s convenient, considering what I do for a living.  It also explains why I love those Wiss scissors so much.  Pure and simple.  And left-handed, please.  As it turns out the owner of the sewing store in Kona is also left-handed, so of course she had just what I wanted in stock: 7″ left-handed Ginghers.  Solid steel, great heft, a good fit in my dominant hand, and a joy to use.

The Canon T2i I ordered should arrive in the next week and a half.  I still have the 18% gray card I used as a backdrop for the Wiss photograph.  Today when I went in to Kona to pick up some blackout cloth for work, I also picked up a spool of white Güterman thread.  Camera, scissors, thread, card.  Time for another photograph!  And time to celebrate another new camera.

– Tom

Posted in Photography | 1 Comment »

Field Technique Driving Design

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/04/2011

For the last several months I’ve been working with some prototype KAP hardware.  I’m not at liberty to discuss it just yet, but suffice it to say that I’ve learned a lot from the experience.  Mostly what I’ve learned is that I like the way I do KAP, and I find other people’s gear less comfortable to use.  I say this knowing if I handed someone else my KAP gear they would likely find it equally uncomfortable.  No finger pointing here, except at myself.

This has given me reason and opportunity to think about how my technique in the field drives my design of kite aerial photography equipment.  Even when using off-the-shelf components, nearly every KAP rig winds up being hand-crafted to some degree.  We are all of us equipment designers.  All of us have different ideas about what is best, and so all of us design and build unique equipment.

What I came to realize is that I’m not a gear-head when it comes to photography.  I just like things to work.  It’s not that I prefer a point and shoot camera or always set my camera to automatic.  Honestly, I’m happiest with a large format view camera.  But I like the camera to work the same way every time, and I hate to have to fiddle with things in order to get what I want.  I like simple.  If I could make aerial photographs by simply pulling my camera from its bag, holding it up to my eye, and making an aerial photograph, I would.  But I can’t.  KAP is a compromise in that regard, but I’ve found ways to make it as close to this as I can:

  • I like kites with no more than one spar that needs to be installed.  I prefer if it is in no more than two pieces, and that those pieces stay together once assembled.  Unfortunately this makes my Dopero less than ideal for my purposes.  Given the choice, though, I’d rather set up a big rokkaku than a Dopero.  It’s less fiddly.
  • I like a winder that can wind under tension.  Most people in the kiting world will say this is a no-no.  I disagree.  If the winder is designed to take the forces generated with a hefty safety margin, there’s no problem using it this way.  And for the way I do KAP being able to take line in and out quickly while walking is a must.
  • I like a camera that saves its settings so I don’t have to monkey with it.  My current camera does this, and the new one I ordered will do this as well.  My big complaint with my current camera is that I have to start CHDK before lofting my camera.  It seems minor, but this single step has tripped me up more than once.  And more than once I’ve had to remove the camera from the rig, flip open the LCD, and fix what went wrong.  My new camera won’t have this issue.
  • I like a rig that just works: power it up, test it out, and send it aloft.  I’ve been very rigid about this with my own rigs, to the point where this has never been an issue in the field.
  • The same is true of my radio transmitter: power it up, test it out, send the camera aloft.  But the more I use it, and the more panoramas I do, the more I think a completely autonomous rig with no radio control is the route I’d like to go.  This single point is driving the design of the rig for my new camera more than anything else.
  • I don’t like having to fuss with the camera once I start work.  It bugs me that CHDK will only self-boot on 4GB or smaller cards.  I’d far rather fly a 32GB card and never have to stop.  Since the T2i can’t run CHDK, and doesn’t strictly need it for KAP, I got a 32GB card for my new camera.
  • I like to know my image processing software can handle whatever I throw at it.  With the T2i I’m finally venturing into the land of the RAW file.  I’m not happy with my RAW processing tools.  This is something I plan to work out on the ground before I ever send that camera aloft.

That’s it.  Design philosophy in a can.

This is why the first rig for my new camera will not include a radio.  It will not include a video downlink.  It likely won’t include a tilt servo.  It’s going to be strictly for panoramas, and I plan to make every effort to ensure it squeezes every ounce of performance out of the T2i in that regard.  As the design process moves forward, I’ll post details here.

– Tom


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